من و باب هوپ

کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 17

من و باب هوپ

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Me and Bob Hope

The great American philosopher Dr. Seuss once wrote about a fellow named the Grinch, who for some mysterious reason did not enjoy Christmas. Dr. Seuss tried to delve deep into the unfestive mind of this enigmatic creature in order to find a possible reason for his lack of Christmas spirit:

It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

These are fine explanations, but to me the obvious answer was overlooked. Perhaps the Grinch was, like me, a Muslim, someone who was left out of all Christmas festivities. The problem with the religious explanation is obvious: nothing rhymes with “Muslim.” At least if you’re “Jewish,” you can feel “blue-ish” during Christmas, but with “Muslim” you’re just stuck.

When I lived in Iran, the country was predominantly, but not entirely Muslim. Iranian Jews and Christians worshiped in peace. My family and I were secular Muslims, like most of the population. My parents’ idea of being religious consisted of donating a part of their income to the poor and not eating ham. The only women who chose to cover themselves head to toe with a chador were either older women or villagers. In the cities, Iranian woman preferred to dress like Jackie Kennedy or Elizabeth Taylor.

In school, one of the subjects we studied was religion. We learned not only about Islam but also about Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. We were taught to practice Islam, but to respect all religions. Knowledge of Islam was mandatory for all Muslim students; its practice was not. The Christian and Jewish children at my school were exempt from religious studies, a fact that caused much envy among the rest of us.

When we moved to America, I discovered that school was much more fun here. There was less homework, no endless math drills, and no memorization of famous poems. I loved my teacher, Mrs. Sandberg. I loved Girl Scouts, the Whittier Public Library, and Butterfinger candy bars. I loved Halloween, The Brady Bunch, and free toys in cereal boxes. It seemed to me that life in America was one long series of festivities, all of them celebrated with merriment and chocolate.

The laughter, however, stopped when we reached Christmas. All of a sudden, everyone was having a party and I was not invited.

In Iran, the biggest holiday is Nowruz, New Year’s Day. Since it is a secular holiday, Nowruz is celebrated by the entire country, as Thanksgiving is in the United States. It always begins on the first day of spring at the exact moment of the equinox. This means that every year Nowruz begins at a different time. One year it might be March 21 at 5:32 a.m., while the next year it might occur on March 20 at 11:54 p.m. Every Iranian knows the exact moment the jubilation begins.

The festivities are preceded by weeks of preparation. Everyone thoroughly cleans his house, buys or makes new clothes, and bakes traditional pastries. A ceremonial setting called a haft-seen, which consists of seven symbols beginning with the sound “s,” is displayed along with other meaningful objects like a mirror, colored eggs, and goldfish in a bowl. The objects represent health, renewal, prosperity, fertility, and the usual universal hopes shared by people at any New Year’s celebration. Unlike the traditional American New Year’s wishes, however, the Persian New Year holds no symbols of hope representing “losing ten pounds” or “getting in shape.” For Nowruz, most businesses close and the streets are deserted. For twelve days after the equinox, people visit relatives and friends, always starting with the eldest. Once all the elders have been visited, they in turn visit the younger members of the family. At every house, a tray of homemade sweets is offered along with wishes for the New Year. Children receive money, always in the form of brand-new bills. I assume that since the wave of immigration after 1980, banks in America have noticed a sudden increase in demand for crisp bills in the month of March.

But when we moved to America in 1972, Nowruz lost all its meaning. No longer did we feel the excitement building toward the big day. No longer did we see people cleaning their drapes, buying new clothes, or sweeping their yards spotless. No longer did we prepare for an onslaught of visitors. Gone were the smells of pastries coming from every kitchen, gone were the purple hyacinths that decorated every house, gone were the strangers wishing us “Nowruz Mubarak,” “Happy New Year.” Gone was the excitement in the air.

In America, we have tried our best to celebrate Nowruz, but it’s a challenge. Since it’s not an American holiday, everyone is either at work or in school. It’s hard to get in the mood when your national holiday falls somewhere between soccer practice and the dentist appointment. However, now that there are more Iranian immigrants in America, it is becoming far more enjoyable to celebrate Nowruz. I’m sure that Macy’s Nowruz sale is not too far behind.

In America, Christmas is the king of all holidays. To be left out of Christmas is the ultimate minority experience. As an adolescent, I learned to commiserate with my Jewish friends. Together, we talked about how we couldn’t wait for December 26, how we hated hearing Christmas songs everywhere, and how we wished that our mothers would, just once, bake us Christmas cookies. Although I enjoyed kvetching with my Jewish friends, I was not convinced that they could thoroughly feel my pain. They, after all, had Hanukkah, which, even though it’s completely different from Christmas, still involves food, clothing, presents, and light. At my house, December could have just as easily been August, since there was absolutely no sign of any festivities. Christmas vacation was a long, boring holiday.

In Iran, whenever we had free time, we got together with relatives. In America, whenever we had free time, we watched television. Christmas for us meant an evening spent with Bob Hope, John Denver, Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and any other celebrity who managed to have a Christmas special. We weren’t picky. If it was on, we watched. My parents, however, had a particular fondness for the annual Bob Hope Christmas specials with frequent guest star Brooke Shields. They didn’t understand any of Bob’s jokes, but my father laughed along with the laugh tracks. Then my father would ask, “What did he say?” And that was how I spent Christmas Eve—translating Bob Hope’s jokes into Persian, jokes that my parents didn’t understand in any language. Of course, for my father, Bob Hope was more than just a comedian; he was a dignified older man who wore sharp suits, had great posture, and managed to be witty without ever getting nervous. I think that secretly my father wanted to be Bob Hope.

My mother thought Brooke Shields, in the dozen different outfits she wore for each show, was the embodiment of perfection. I could not understand why Brooke, who is the same age as I am, never went through an awkward adolescent stage. I wished I could be Brooke Shields. So did my mom.

In between all the song-and-dance numbers, we watched endless commercials for all the wonderful gifts that we were not going to receive and made plans for the after-Christmas sales, a celebration that unites all religions.

During the month of December, people constantly wished us “Merry Christmas” in that automatic way. If we said that we didn’t celebrate Christmas, we received a cheery “Happy Hanukkah.” Call us Scrooge, but we didn’t celebrate that one either.

“Then what do you celebrate?” we were always asked.

“Nothing,” we’d say.

“What are you?”

“Muslim.”

A few brave souls inquired further, usually academic types or residents of Berkeley. The average citizen, however, smiled, said, “Oh,” and left.

When I married a Catholic, I became a card-carrying member of the Christmas Club. Now, every December, my children and I drag a tree into our house, leaving a trail of pine needles should the tree need to find its way back. We decorate the tree with ornaments that take up half of our closet space, eat Christmas cookies that help us grow in both spirit and girth, and read Christmas stories that leave my children asking questions like “How can Santa not bring toys for some kids when, Mommy, you told us that all kids are good inside?” Despite my dislike for cleaning pine needles from every nook and cranny, I love celebrating Christmas. I love watching my children count the days till December 25, a countdown that seems to get harder every year. I remember when having to wait a week for Nowruz felt like an eternity. And, just as my father assured me that Nowruz was indeed around the corner, I assure my kids that Christmas will be here before they know it.

Even though I’m too old to believe in Santa Claus, I’m just the right age for baking Christmas cookies. What’s Christmas without bourbon balls, gingerbread, and fudge? I’m not sure which I enjoy more, the flavors or the smells, but either way, they remind me of the excitement of Nowruz. My Christmas kitchen smells of ginger, chocolate, and cinnamon. In my childhood kitchen, Nowruz smelled of cardamom, roasted pistachios, and rose water. And in every Iranian living room, the sweet scent of hyacinths trumpeted the arrival of Nowruz and the beginning of spring. In America, our Christmas tree fills our house with the unmistakable aroma of pine, a scent I now associate with winter celebrations.

Despite my new love for Christmas, I often find myself exhausted at the end of December. Christmas, with its elf laborers and flying reindeer, is far more complicated than Nowruz. In between all the cooking and cleaning, I try my best to answer my children’s many questions. I do my best to explain how Santa manages to deliver so many presents in just one night and how he manages not to trip anyone’s burglar alarm and how it is that Santa doesn’t have a bad back even though he’s an old man and he has to carry so much stuff.

At times like this, I yearn for the simpler days of yore, when Christmas meant watching Bob Hope sing his version of “White Christmas” as my parents and I slumped on the sofa in our summer clothes in the warm Newport Beach weather.

Now every Christmas Eve, when the kids are finally in bed, the dishes are washed, and the log is on its final breath, I can’t help but think of Bob Hope and wonder if he realizes that in my childhood home, he was way bigger than Santa Claus. Mr. Hope, unlike the bearded fellow, came to everyone’s house. And even though my parents didn’t understand any of his jokes, I got them all. And they were funny, in both English and Persian. So, Mr. Hope, thank you and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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